writing, Writing advice

Writing Isn’t Like Baking A Cake

As someone who has published five novels over the past nine years, I occasional am asked for advice from newer, inexperienced writers. I am always happy to answer to the best of my ability. Whether they like my answers, or not, is a different matter, but I always try to be honest without utterly discouraging the newbie.

Recently, someone told me that they wanted to write a novel, but weren’t sure where to begin. Should she start with the plot? Maybe she should begin by fully designing her characters. How about location? Is it better to begin with one over the other?

In a word, no.

Like many artistic endeavors, there is no correct way to begin. Writing a novel is not like baking a cake. There is no standard recipe that, if you faithfully follow it step-by-step, will leave you the proud author of a novel. Writing a novel is more like trying to herd twenty-five three-year-olds through a County Fair. You start off with a legitimate plan, then improvise when it doesn’t work. When you are finished, the product is good and an accomplishment, but bears very little resemblance to what you thought it would be.

So how do you do it? How do you start that novel?

You write a word on a blank page. It’s that simple. Now you’ve started your novel.

The thing is, every writer is different. What works for me may not work for you and what works for you may not work for the next guy. In fact, I believe every work is different. I didn’t write my second novel exactly the same way I wrote the first (partially because it was the second novel in a series so I already had the main characters created and ready to go). The novel I’m working on now is developing in an entirely different manner than anything else I’ve written. I’m perfectly okay with that.

Some writers begin with a detailed outline, working out every plot development in outline form before they ever sit down to write a scene. Others, start out with a character they really like, or find fascinating, and then create a plot around them as a means to reveal that character. Others do some combination of the two. Still others just sit down and write the story, figuring out the plot and characters as the story reveals them.

In my current project (which still doesn’t even have a working title) I began with a single scene that had been part of a dream. I am creating the plot and character depth as I go. It’s probably not particularly efficient (I’ll have to go back and adjust various things as my perception of the story evolves, but I’ll have to re-write anyway), but it’s the way the story is revealing itself to me.

So, back to the original question: how do you start writing your novel? By starting it. Start writing the story you want to tell. If you get lost, or bogged down, try outlining the chapter you’re working on. Try outlining the entire work. If it still doesn’t seem to work, try writing profiles of your main characters, character sketches.

In short, try everything. Find out what works for you.

Write. Write often and write a lot. Write to solve the next problem your novel presents you. Write the best you know how, but don’t worry if the first draft pretty much sucks. You will fix that during the revision process. Just write, one word after another. Build a sentence, a paragraph, a page, and a chapter.

How does one start their novel? By writing.

Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Write Descriptions like Raymond Chandler

Lately I have been reading Raymond Chandler again, specifically Farewell, My Lovely. For those who are not familiar with Mr. Chandler and his work, he writes what is called the “hard-boiled” detective stories. In fact, Raymond Chandler and his colleague Dashiell Hammett, pretty much invented the genre. Hammett had Sam Spade, of The Maltese Falcon fame, and Chandler had Philip Marlowe. Both are cynical, world-weary detectives without a tract of romanticism between the two of them.

But even if you don’t particularly like the hard-boiled detective genre, Raymond Chandler is still worth reading, just because he is so good at what he does. He’s a very good writer who is often overlooked by those who don’t consider him a “serious” writer.

Why do I consider Chandler so good? Because of the prose he produced. Yes, it might have been pulp fiction and is still considered (by those who spend way too much time sorting novels into particular boxes) “genre” fiction. And yes it is genre fiction, but it is very good genre fiction. There are a couple of reasons for this.

His description is uniquely interesting.

Part of the tradition in hard-boiled detective fiction is that the narrative is told in the first person, ostensibly by the detective. In Raymond Chandler’s case, Philip Marlowe. Part of that narrative is to portray the detective as jaded, cynical, and world weary, reflecting the detective’s low expectations of the world around him. Chandler does this better than anyone else and does it with nearly every single word he puts on the page.

Consider his description of a showgirl:

From thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class. From ten feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from thirty feet away. (The High Window)

Or a building:

The Belfont Building was eight stories of nothing in particular… (The High Window)

The very descriptions give the impression of a narrator who is more than a bit of a smart ass and not impressed by much anymore.

Another building, this time a mansion:

The house itself was not so much. It was smaller than Buckingham Palace, rather gray for California, and probably had fewer windows than the Chrysler Building. (Farewell, My Lovely)

As a person who enjoys sarcasm myself, this is someone I would enjoy spending some time with. Chandler uses sarcasm to great effect, as well as understatement, and exaggeration. Each working double duty, telling us what is going on as well as Marlowe’s attitude towards what is going on.

Perhaps Chandler’s greatest gift though, is in the use of similes. They are unique, surprising, and yet perfectly in character. When describing the aftereffects of being knocked out:

My stomach took a whirl. I clamped my teeth tight and just managed to keep it down my throat. Cold sweat stood out in lumps on my forehead, but I shivered just the same. I got up on one foot, then on both feet, straightened up, wobbling a little. I felt like an amputated leg. (Farewell, My Lovely) (the bold is my own)

The passage not only conveys what is happening, it conveys the narrator’s attitude toward what is happening with a wonderful economy of language. The narrator reports what is happening in a unique voice, then comments on it in a way that intensifies the characterization.

And he does this throughout the novel, with impressive consistency.

A man in a striped vest and gilt buttons opened the door, bowed, took my hat and was through for the day. (Farewell, My Lovely)

There was a cornflower in the lapel of his white coat and his pale blue eyes looked faded out by comparison…he had the general appearance of a lad who would wear a white flannel suit with a violet scarf around his neck and a cornflower in his lapel. (Farewell, My Lovely)

And this is all fine and dandy for those who are writing hard-boiled detective fiction, where the narrator or main character is supposed to be cynical, expecting the worst from humanity because that’s usually what he sees. But I’m writing a romance, or a historical family drama; how does this help me?

Because every scene you write, is written from someone’s point of view. It is narrated in someone’s voice, usually the voice of the main character. Having that voice obviously change as the point of view changes goes a great way toward showing your reader the character.

A room described by a Marine Corps Gunnery Sargent is going to be different than that same room as described by a twenty-year-old kindergarten teacher and animal rights activist. They will each notice different things. Their vocabularies will be different. The aggression (or lack thereof) will be different. It’s an extreme example, but the principle is there. Use your description to help create the character’s voice.

Reading Raymond Chandler’s novel is one way to see just how a master does that and does it well.

Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Irreconcilable Opposites in Characterization

Last week I told you about the workshop I took at the South Coast Writers Conference in which Eric Witchey described the process of creating emotionally driven fiction. I thought it was very eye-opening. My attitude towards my own fiction was instantly changed. Now I had another concrete test to judge it against.

It rocked my writing world a bit.

In that same workshop, Mr. Witchey touched upon another subject, but didn’t flesh it out very much due to time limitations. That is the idea of irreconcilable traits within our main character and tying them to our central theme.

The premise of this idea is that the most memorable characters often embody two or more mutually exclusive, often extreme, aspects.

For instance, when a character is both a dedicated pacifist and given to violent rages, we immediately pay attention. We do because we know the two cannot exist for long within one character without something giving out. It is a guarantee of dramatic tension.

Now if these irreconcilable character traits are also linked to the central theme of the story, the reader is going to be grabbed by bonds of sympathy and be at the writer’s mercy.

Mr. Witchey a four step approach to developing irreconcilable characteristics in your characters.

Build a character from opposing roles or beliefs gathered from the character’s background and environment.

As you gather these opposing characteristics, you will begin to generate a series of “how” and “why” questions. How did a man subject to violent rages become a pacifist? Why?

Articulate the irreconcilable opposites of the character as succinctly as possible.

To be most effective, you—the author—must be familiar enough with the characteristics to be able to state them succinctly. You get here by answering the “how” and “why” questions generated by the previous question. How does it manifest? Why did they develop?

Articulate the controlling or central them of the story.

Every solid story has a central theme. We, as the authors of a work, must be able to articulate this theme, since in order to properly build the story we must build with and around it.

As soon as the reader perceives the irreconcilable opposites, they internalize the expectation that the opposites will be resolved before the story’s central theme plays out.

Every scene of the story strains or changes the character’s irreconcilable opposites and move through the central theme. Anything that doesn’t impact both the irreconcilable differences and the central theme must be cut from the final draft.

State the change in irreconcilable opposites at the story’s point of transformation.

The character strains until they can no longer live with it. They will either have to change, or they will die. In the example cited of the pacifist with anger issues, he will either have to commit to a pacifist life, no matter what the personal cost, resign himself to his violent nature, or find some third path, somewhere between the two.

But it critical that a change has to happen if you want the story to truly resonate with the reader. Without change, nothing is resolved and the reader is left with the feeling that the story doesn’t accomplish anything.

Nothing was resolved.

This is just another tool to use as you craft and revise your fiction. Like any other tool use it as you see fit.

Wishing you all good writing.

Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Oh, The Profanity!

Last week I read a novel I’d checked out of the local public library. (It was very good, thank you, a thriller by Greg Iles. I’ve just discovered him.) As I read I noticed with more than a little disquiet that a previous library patron had taken it upon themselves to scratch out all the profanity with blue ink.

This upset me on several levels. First, I don’t write in any or my books, unless I’ve bought it specifically as a “study” book. In those cases, I have another, pristine copy. Books are valuable, to be treasured, not defaced. Second, this particular book did not belong to the person with the pen. They were defacing someone else’s property. Third, is the issue of censorship. I mean who are they to decide that I (or anyone else) should not be exposed to profanity?

It is the censorship issue that I’m most concerned with today. Obviously (because of this censorship incident) that profanity bothers a certain slice of the reading public. What does that mean for us as writers of fiction? Do we use profanity in our work? Do we make an effort to “clean” up our work to avoid the controversy?

There are a few lines of reasoning at play here. Perhaps the most important (I know it is in my case anyway) is Mother’s voice in the back of our head saying “it’s a sign of low class,” or “a limited vocabulary.” Though I have been known to use a bit of profanity in my speech, it is infrequent and mostly when I lose my temper. Let’s face it, when you’re really mad, nothing is more satisfying than a torrent of profanity.

And, to a certain extent, Mom was right. The standard image of the upper class in English-speaking society does not include the public use of profanity. One does not expect to hear a lot of cussing at, say, a Metropolitan Opera gala. “Polite” society does not talk that way. Not in our imagination, anyway. Now, switch to a poverty-stricken urban crack house and we’d be surprised if f-bombs weren’t dropping all over the place.

And that’s where it applies to our writing. Characterization. Writing a realistic scene involving an upper class gathering where profanity is constantly used would not ring true, but using such language in a scene at a crack house would add a touch of realism to the scene. Even if all the addicts involved are fallen Harvard literature professors, readers would expect a certain amount of gutter talk. As the saying goes, it goes with the territory.

Any reader who objects to the use of profanity in such circumstances has no business reading that kind of material. They really don’t want to know about it.

One of my personal pet peeves is when a fiction work (it most often happens in American network television, but novels and motion pictures are not immune) that tries to be realistic, yet has some under-educated gangster type speaking like a nun. It just doesn’t ring true. I am a pretty solid middle class guy and I have few friends that speak like a nun. Come on.

Another use for profanity is probably one of the most popular (especially for children in front of their parents and the counter-cultural types) is for shock value. In my newest novel, Deception Island, I use the f-word once. That is when the bad guys kill her dog and she’s hurt and very, very angry. It’s the only time in the entire book she uses such language. As such, I thought it a good way to express the depths of her fury. Precisely because it wasn’t her usual diction.

Just as in writing about sex, often with profanity less is more.

Above all, we writers need to write the story. Profanity should be like any other aspect of the story: it needs to add to the package. The story needs to be better with the profanity in it, than it is without it. If that isn’t true it should be edited out. That decision rest with the writer and the writer alone. She needs to take the advice of beta readers and editors, but ultimately the story is hers. It needs to be her decision.

That being said, the decision should never be made solely because the author is afraid of offending someone. You are always going to offend someone. If it isn’t your use of profanity, it will be your choice of subject matter, or your underlying political view. Nothing kills creativity like trying to please everyone. That is a surefire way to take the soul out of whatever you are writing.

And to all the readers out there. On behalf of writers and authors everywhere, I am sorry if something you are reading offends you. I can honestly say that was not our sole purpose. So we do apologize.

But please, if you are offended, do us all a favor. Close the offending book and walk away. Return it to the library, or give it to someone who might appreciate it. Please do not cross out the offending passages. Do not rip pages out of the volume. This is a book. It is the result of many hours of hard work and many sleepless nights.

Just move on to something you do like.

Just have some respect.

writing, Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Registration Now Open For the South Coast Writers Conference

One of the many hats I am prone to wear (other than writer of fiction and blogger) is that of a member of the organizing committee of the South Coast Writers Conference, an annual event we hold in my hometown of Gold Beach, Oregon on the Presidents’ Day holiday weekend. It is in that role that I am pleased to announce the lineup for the 2015 Conference, February 13-14, 2015.

The Presenters are:

Kim Griswell (keynote):
Developmental editor of children’s books for Portable Press and former coordinating editor at Highlights for Children.


Hey, Kid! Have I got a Story for You!— the craft of narrative nonfiction.
It’s All About Character—characterization

Stevan Allred:
Author of A Simplified Map of the World.


Exploring Point of View—Friday intensive workshop
Dixon Ticonderoga—pencils as inspiration
Creating Convincing Characters Across Gender—characterization of those not like us.

Mark Bennion:
Teaches at Brigham Young University-Idaho. Author of two poetry collections: Psalm and Selah, and Forsythia.


Close Observation and Resonant Sources (twice)

Dan Berne:
Author of The Gods of Second Chances, his debut novel.


Market Trends You Need to know About
Build Your Marketing Plan

Mark Graham:
Musician who has performed at The Newport Folk Festival and The Prairie Home Companion.


Art of Satiric and Comic Song

Nina Kiriki Hoffman:
Stoker and Nebula Award winning author of fiction.


Find Magic in Your Own Backyard
Setting is Character is Setting

Elena Passarello:
Her debut collection Let Me Clear My Throat won the Independent Publishers Association Gold Medal for non-fiction and was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award. She teaches at Oregon State University.


Research in Literary Prose
The Ol’ Collage Try
—collage story telling

Liz Prato:
The author of Baby’s On Fire: Stories.


Perfect Your First Two Pages—Friday intensive workshop
Master Your Point of View
The Ins and Outs of Publishing in Lit Journals

Jeffrey Schultz:
The author of the National Poetry Series Selection: What Ridiculous Things We Could Ask of Each Other. He is the Interim Director of the Creative Writing Program at Pepperdine University.


Voice, Personality, and Perspective
Metonymy and Experience
—alternate literary devices

Tess Thompson:
Bestselling author of romantic suspense.


Conquering Dialogue—Friday intensive workshop
Dialogue for Page-turning Fiction–(condensed version of the Friday workshop)

Once again, we have invited some of the best writers of the Pacific Northwest to guide you in an exploration and celebration of the many facets of writing. Participation in workshops is limited to 25 students for each of the three, intensive, Friday workshops and to 30 for the Saturday workshops. Participants are urged to register early to secure a seat in the workshops they want.

The South Coast Writers Conference. Gold Beach, Oregon, United States. Friday February 13, Saturday February 14, 2015.

For more information on the conference, contact the Gold Beach Center of Southwestern Oregon Community College at 541-247-2741 or visit the conference website at http://www.socc.edu/scwriters.

Writing advice, Writing and Editing

The Character Tag

Perhaps the most difficult part of learning this craft of writing fiction is learning to create and describe characters. Characterization is as much of an art as it is a science. We must give our readers enough physical and emotional description for them to create a mental image of the character, but not so much that it slows down the story. We must provide enough, but not so much that it gets in the way.

So how do we do that? What is the formula? Just as important, how do we learn to strike that artful balance?

Unfortunately, like all art, there is no formula. (If there was, we’d all be great artists, right?) The only real method to learn how to achieve that balance is by reading established masters and then trying to do it in our own work. Imitation, coupled with trial and error, really is the only way to get there from here.

With that being said, there is one technique that is quite useful in communicating characterization to the reader and that is the character tag.

The character tag is a memorable term or phrase used to mark or differentiate a character from others. It can be a physical feature (like a birthmark), a mannerism (say, chewing nails under stress), a verbal quirk (like referring to one’s self in the third person), or by tying them to a particular location. It’s a shorthand manner of reminding the reader who they are seeing.

Think of it as a literary theme song.

It’s especially useful when you have a large number of characters the reader needs to somehow keep straight in their head, or the action moves so fast you, the writer, don’t want to slow things down with a lot of description.

In Stephen King’s masterful (and long) novel, It, virtually every major character has a tag, from “stuttering” Bill, to Richie and his “voices,” and even the evil entity with its clown and balloons. All it takes after the introduction of each character is a quick mention of the tag and we know exactly who we’re dealing with. Like much of Mr. King’s work, it’s masterful.

F. Scott Fitzgerald uses tags in The Great Gatsby, one of the shorter novels out there, again, with mastery. This time it’s a vocal tag. Whenever the subject of the novel, Jay Gatsby, speaks, we hear him use the term “sport” when referring to the people around him. It’s unique within the work and is an integral part of his characterization. From the first time we meet him, we can recognize his speech without any further description.

That’s exactly what it’s supposed to do.

In my first novel, Ni’il: The Awakening, I used a tag to describe the local doctor/medical examiner who is something of a mid-major character. When we first meet him, I give the reader a moderate physical description, ending “with his long hair and granny-style glasses, he bore a strong resemblance to John Lennon.” From then on, throughout the novel (and its sequels) whenever he reappeared, all I needed to do was mention the John Lennon connection for the reader to place him.

The danger inherent in using character tags is getting too cute with them and risking ending up with caricatures instead of characterizations. The way to avoid this is to make sure the tag is an essential part of the character’s description. Rather than invent a tag and place it on the character, describe the character and create the tag from that description. It will help to ensure that the tag is organic and not just clever or cute.

But as we strive to achieve that balance of description and brevity, keep tags in mind as a part of your toolbox. If used well, they can help greatly.

Writing advice

Beware the Cookie-cutter Character

The other day I was wasting time on the internet (which is exceedingly easy to do) when I came across a video that made a lasting impression on me. The subject matter is not important, but suffice it to say that the woman involved truly believed something that is patently false. False, as in a minute’s worth of research on Google would prove it, false.

Okay. So there are some people out there who are ignorant. There are others who are not intellectually gifted. Well, duh. Everyone knows that. Why did it make such a big impression on me?

Because, depending on one’s environment, we may not run across people like this very often. If we don’t, it’s hard to put them in our fiction. I personally have this problem and have to consciously fight it as I write and edit my fiction.

The natural instinct of us human beings as we create stories and the like is create characters based on our own experiences and milieu. It’s what we do as children. We imagine we are pirates, or musketeers, or princesses, whatever. We don’t imagine other people as the pirates, except as minor characters. We don’t imagine that the bad guy will not be impressed with our daring-do. We certainly don’t imagine our fellow pirates might not agree with our plans.

As I said, it’s only natural.

Unfortunately when we begin to use this same method to write fiction, we run into a very real problem: cookie-cutter characters. I am no exception. I have to consciously fight my instinctual urge to create these cookie-cutter characters.

What do I mean by cookie-cutter characters? These are not the two-dimensional characters so many articles warn us about. A cookie-cutter character can be very well-rounded. A cookie-cutter character is one who shares the same diction and world-view with another character despite differing backgrounds.

For example. I am a white, middle class American with a college education. I am fairly good at expressing myself and familiar with world history and current events. If I am not careful (and this is something I’ve only become aware of within the last ten years, or so) all my characters will sound like white, middle-class Americans with a college education, even if some of them are, say inner city people of color, high school dropouts, or immigrants from another country.

The video I watched reminded me of this because my initial reaction was to think “she can’t really believe this, can she?” The answer is “yes, she can.” While it could be argued that most people aren’t factually ignorant or mentally challenged, there are plenty of people who are and plenty of people who simply don’t care enough about the subject to spend their energy there. Everyone does not think like I do. Everyone does not speak or view the world as I do.

This needs to be reflected in my writing.

Why? Because it makes the work of fiction more realistic and more interesting. Say your main characters are policy analysts for the United States State Department having dinner at a local restaurant. The odds say their waitress probably cannot offer a nuanced opinion on American policy towards Syria. Sure, she could be working her way through graduate school, but it’s more likely that she’s a high school graduate with two small children at home and spends all her time and energy supporting and raising her family. If they asked her opinion (which they probably wouldn’t) her answer would reflect that background.

If she answered at all.

Okay, so we now agree that we need to include a realistic variety of characters with a variety of backgrounds and diction and vocabulary patterns that match their backgrounds. So how do we do that? This is where our handy writer’s notebook comes in. We need to actively listen to the people around us of different backgrounds. How does the unemployed high school dropout describe his frequent run-ins with the police? How does the banker describe his run-in with the SEC? They are very similar situations, but I’d bet the two men (or women) would use very differing terms in their description.

So use your notebook. Take notes about how various people talk, how they hold themselves, and their attitudes. Often it only takes a few words of casual conversation to determine these things. Start a collection. Create a database to consult as you’re working.

Constantly check your work as you write and edit. Does your ditch digger (I know, they don’t exist anymore, but you know what I mean) speak like a professor of comparative literature? Does your cardiac surgeon talk like a fry cook? If so, you might have cookie-cutter characters.
And I will continue to work to keep them out of my own work.